Howe Sound, in my opinion, is one of the most incredibly beautiful places on the planet.
As a subject, it has been painted, photographed and sketched countless times, and has been the topic of much poetry, since the beginning of time.
I remember when I first drove through the Sound. It played a part in my decision to relocate from Toronto to Vancouver. I couldn’t believe the incredible, breathtaking natural beauty of the region.
The history of Howe Sound begins with the Indigenous people, the Squamish and Shishalh, who roamed this land and traveled on this body of water for thousands of years, had village sites and camp sites spread throughout the area. The land and islands are still used by Squamish and Shishalh for cultural practices.
In 1791, Spanish explorers discovered the region and named it ‘Boca del Carmelo’. A year later Captain George Vancouver renamed the Sound after Admiral Earl Howe.
Britannia Beach, a town of about 300, is located on the shores of the Sound, less than an hour from Vancouver.
Until the development of highway 99 in 1965, the town was only accessible by water. As such, the town had its own thriving social life.
Dances and tennis, bowling, swimming pools, billiard rooms and libraries. You could partake in a sporting event, theatrical performance, movies and various parties held throughout the year. That didn’t last forever, and even still, Britannia is trying to regain its momentum.
In 1888, copper was found in Britannia Creek. Large scale mining began here in 1905. By 1929, the Britannia copper mine was the largest in the British Empire.
The mine remained in operation until 1974, and plays a huge part in the abandonment of Britannia. Tonnes of toxic effluent leached from the mine into Howe Sound, contaminating soil and water in the area.
The town and its residents have experienced many tragedies and disasters throughout the years. Also from Wikipedia;
On March 21, 1915 an avalanche destroyed the Jane Camp. Sixty men, women and children were killed and it was a terrible blow to the tiny community.
In March 1921 during a brief period when the mine was shut down, mill No. 2 burnt to the ground.
On October 28, 1921 after a full day of torrential rain, a massive flood destroyed much of that portion of the community and mine operations that existed on the lower beach area. 50 of 110 homes were destroyed and thirty-seven men, women and children lost their lives. The flood was caused because the mining company had dammed up a portion of the Creek during the construction of a railway, and when this dam gave way the town below was flooded.
And this is to say nothing of the damage done by the mining company, when operations finally ceased. They made no efforts to clean up – and it was not yet the law to do so.
Prior to the reclamation work undertaken by the University of British Columbia and the Provincial Government, the clear and transparent water in Britannia Creek suggested a pristine environment, however the clear water was actually an indication that no living creatures could survive in it. The water could not be consumed by humans either.
Before 2001, rainwater and creek run off flowed directly through contaminated mine shafts, maintaining the flow of pollutants into the Sound and through the local ground waters.
Britannia was designated as the “worst point source of mineral contamination in North America” by the Federal environmental Ministry. Subsequently the lower townsite was abandoned, though well preserved, as shown in the above photos.
There are still plenty of places in town worth checking out, and a few services available. A trading post, and few galleries, the best restaurant in town; ‘Mountain (Wo)Mans’, located in an old blue bus (pictured above).
Scenic views, an awesome ghost town walk, interesting history, friendly people, delicious diner food and of course the mine. Though we haven’t taken an official tour yet, it is on our list.
The mine itself has been deemed a National Historic Site of Canada, and has recently undergone some impressive renovations.
Years ago, you could access the waterfront, and climb into the boat graveyard – something I did a few times (I have photos somewhere, a future project).
Since the clean up and reclamation, they have blocked the noxious shoreline, moved the toxic ‘dead boats’ (all but one or two) while decontamination efforts are underway.
The plan is to redevelop the shore once toxic levels are acceptable. That could take a while.
Not far from Britannia is the most incredible view point. If you are driving the area, watch out for it, and make sure to stop – carefully, of course!
We were now only an hour and a bit from home, our long weekend was over. It had been quite an adventure heading from summer into winter and back into summer again – a rather varied province, BC!
Additional photos in the slideshow.